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November 22, 2014

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‘Barefoot social workers’ bring children hope

IN a mud house in a village 40 kilometers from China’s northwest border with Kazakhstan, 7-year-old Xiao Xiao is taking a hard step forward with a walking aid. Beside him are his parents and a neighbor, Qi Fengwei.

“We owe Qi a great debt of gratitude,” says Xiao Xiao’s mother, who regards Qi as a member of the family.

Qi is one of a small army of “barefoot social workers,” an informal position established under a pilot program to extend social services to vulnerable children in China’s vast poverty-stricken countryside.

Initiated in 2010, the program has been run under the auspices of the United Nations Children’s Fund in partnership with China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs and Beijing Normal University.

As the “barefoot doctors” tended to farmers in the remote corners of the country in the 1960s, the barefoot social workers tend to children.

For the 120 barefoot social workers who serve in the five pilot provinces in central and western China, every day begins by visiting neighbors to assess the needs of their children.

In the winter of 2011, Qi visited Xiao Xiao’s family and learned about his disability for the first time.

Born with cerebral palsy, Xiao Xiao could not speak, walk or even grasp things. His parents spent what they earned on treatments for his condition.

“We were rarely at home — always in hospital or on the way to hospital — until we ran out of money,” says the boy’s mother.

Qi reported Xiao Xiao’s case to the local government, and helped the family apply for subsistence allowances and rural medical care in 2012.

With a health care subsidy, Xiao Xiao had an operation and received medical treatment the following year.

“He can now draw simple pictures, and can eat and dress by himself. The doctors say there’s hope that he will walk,” his father says.

Like Xiao Xiao’s parents, other rural people, often semi-literate, have little contact with the outside world.

“Over the past years, all I knew was to borrow money to pay medical expenses. I didn’t know the government had allowances to support people like us,” Xiao Xiao’s mother says. “It was Qi who told me about the assistance and helped me to apply for it. Now the government pays 80 percent of our medical fees, and we can continue the treatment.”

In Huocheng County in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Qi’s village is home to four ethic groups — Han, Uygur, Kazak and Hui. Qi knows all 426 children in her village.

“Six are disabled, 14 have single parents, and one is seriously ill — I visit that family every week,” Qi says.

Despite China’s rapid development, the economic gap between eastern and western areas is wide, leaving many children in an environment with inadequate care and supervision, as well as poor health and education services.

The central government has a string of policies to support children in poverty, but not everyone understands the welfare system, says Wang Zhenyao, dean of the China Philanthropy Research Institute at Beijing Normal University.

In remote rural regions, some parents are ignorant about getting their child a birth certificate or a residence permit that will ensure their education, vaccinations and access to other social benefits, Wang says.

The village’s child welfare director, or “barefoot social worker,” who lives in the community, serves as the frontline contact with the child and the family to help identify needs and link them with social services or assistance, says UNICEF project officer Xu Wenqing.

Their tasks vary from area to area.

In the southwestern province of Yunnan, where drug abuse has resulted in the spread of HIV/AIDS, the priority has been disease control. In the central province of Henan, where parents have flooded into big cities, the children left behind are the focus of their work. In other places, their tasks are more distinct.

In an autonomous prefecture of Sichuan where child marriage is rampant, the barefoot social workers instruct villagers on its destructive consequences on their children’s health, education and social development, according to Gao Yurong, an expert at the China Philanthropy Research Institute.

Since 2010, barefoot social workers in the pilot areas have helped 3,350 children apply for residence permits, 6,649 orphans apply for allowances, 8,083 impoverished children with subsistence allowances, and 708 disabled children with subsidies for medical kits. The school dropout rate has fallen from 5.3 to 1.8 percent in these areas.

An electronic database of personal and family details of the 80,000 children in pilot areas has been set up to help the barefoot social workers.

“The Ministry of Civil Affairs can now have real-time updates on children’s conditions in remote regions,” says Xu.

As well as offering welfare assistance, barefoot social workers provide emotional support.

Ranagul Usman, a barefoot social worker in another pilot village, talks to the children who should be at school, but are wandering the streets. She also talks to parents who spank their children.

“Gradually the kids begin to trust me and they often come to confide in me,” she says.

In a room filled with skateboards, books, blocks and dolls, decorated with children’s art works in Yining’s Donmav village, 6-year-old Almira Turamamat says she wants to be a barefoot social worker one day so “I can play games with my little friends here every week.”

Barefoot social worker Mavhaba Abdumigit introduces the place as the “Children’s Home,” similar to others in every pilot village.

The barefoot social workers — on a monthly allowance of 800 yuan (US$130) — have similar backgrounds to the kids.

Chen Zhihua, vice director of Yining’s Civil Affairs Bureau, says: “They are educated, can speak both local dialects and Mandarin and above all, they love children. With regular training provided by the program, they are doing impressive work.”

“What they give outweighs what they gain,” says UNICEF’s Xu Wenqing. “They contribute to the building of an inclusive child welfare system in China, which protects children’s rights and gives support to those in need of help.”

Xiao Xiao is old enough for school, but he has a new problem.

“He was rejected by special education schools as he cannot walk by himself. Regular schools refuse to accept him for fear that if I’m in class with him it will affect other students,” his mother says.

Getting him to school is the family’s biggest wish. Qi wants to help and has already informed the government of Xiao Xiao’s problem.

“Very soon, I believe,” Qi says, “Xiao Xiao will go to school.”


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